In the Spirit of the Season

In April, daughter Jennifer had broken the sad news to my granddaughters Lily, 10, and Anna, 8, that there was no Santa, just as they suspected. The kids, their mother, and their grandmother cried  themselves to sleep that night, lamenting the loss of the childhood icon and the end of an era. Christmas just wouldn’t be as charmed from now on, we all thought.

But we were wrong. A new idea transformed our holiday into something bigger this year and, I think, something better than a mere mound of gifts left under our tree.  The girls’ Uncle Michael gets the credit for introducing gratitude.

The day after he arrived from Mexico to spend Christmas with us in California, Michael handed each of his nieces a crisp hundred dollar bill.

“Have you ever touched a ‘Benjamin’ before?” he kidded. Wide-eyed, they shook their heads.

“Well, here’s what I’d like you to do with the money,” he said. “A lot of people are hurting financially this year. I’d like you to think of ways to spend your one hundred dollars on someone else. To spread the love around and make someone’s Christmas a little more merry. What do you say?”

They liked the idea and started to brainstorm. On TV they’d heard  about a food bank trying to fill holiday baskets. Another place took care of families and said they always needed baby diapers. At the mall they’d seen a Christmas tree blanketed with tags from kids asking for simple gifts like tee shirts and soccer balls. Or they could give some money to the local children’s hospital. Or stuff some in the Salvation Army bucket outside of Target. They were excited about all the options they had.

The following day we headed for Costco, where Lily  selected cans, jars, and cartons of foodstuffs for a local food bank, her cart loaded to overflowing. At the register, she grinned from ear to ear when the clerk told her, “Your total comes to $100.78.”

Anna’s turn came next. At the mall, she chose a handful of gift requests from the tag-covered tree, then rode the escalator up to her favorite stores to pick presents for little girls who asked for a hoodie, a Dora doll, a backpack, and a toy microscope. Back at the tree, a man took the packages from her outstretched arms and thanked her for her generosity.

“That made me feel really good,” said Anna later, from the backseat of our car. “We should do this every year.”

So Lily and Anna didn’t lose Santa after all; they  replaced him, playing Santa themselves with their own acts of generosity. Acts that befitted the true spirit of the season and, I hope, will become a new family tradition. Well played, Uncle Michael.

Sweating the Small Stuff

It was close to midnight by the time Jennifer, Lily, Anna, and I arrived at Quinta Elena on Nov. 23. It was good to be home and to have a houseful of company arriving the next day, Tuesday. Thursday would be one of our best Thanksgivings ever, I just knew.

Up early the next morning, I went into the kitchen to make coffee and saw a note on the refrigerator. “It pains me to tell you, Senora Elena,” wrote my housekeeper, Ana, “but the refrigerator, oven, and telephone aren’t working. I called the repair people but no one has come.”

After twelve years of owning a home in a small beach town in Mexico, I’ve learned not to panic as a first reaction to these re-entry snafus. My heart did sink, however, when I  slid the coffee carafe under the tap, opened the faucet, and heard the familiar gurgle of an empty line. The house was out of water. Again.

A chagrined Ana arrived half an hour later, and we sprang into action. Ana badgered and begged the appliance repair shop to send someone asap. I called a contact at the phone company who had helped me out many times before and pleaded for internet access. No way could my guests, NYC media types, do without. Manuel, my gardener/handyman, moved water from one storage tank to another while I ordered a truckload to be delivered to Quinta Elena, an address the tanker driver knew well.

And it all happened (well, almost all. An oven part  had to come from Guadalajara.). Broadband restored, water running, frig fixed, the last truck headed down my driveway as my guests’ rental cars headed up.

Over and over I am offered the same choice here. I can sit on the porch of my beautiful house (, savoring the exquisite sights inside and out while counting my lucky stars. Or I can allow myself  to see only what needs to be fixed or buffed up, creating self-imposed stress as I turn each visit into an urgent to-do list.

Stuff needs maintenance, to be sure. But, I have to remind myself, not to the exclusion of admiring what’s lovely about the place. How the garden had flourished during the past rainy season, for instance. “Reina exora” blossoms, in multi-hued pastels and big as my fist, ran up the driveway now, on bushes that towered over our car.  Lavender “leticia” cups and golden “copas de oro” hid barbed wire, climbed fence posts, and coated slopes that were bare back in August when I was last in San Pancho.

As for our Thanksgiving, it was grand. Guests loved our little town and the beach at neighboring Sayulita, where Lily and Anna got up on surfboards for the first time.Eateries Baja Takueria, Cafe del Mar, and Ola Rica were huge hits. Everyone joined in the spirit of water conservation, taking “Navy showers” and closing faucets while washing dishes.

And for the record, here’s how you turn out a fine Thanksgiving dinner for twenty without an oven: You bake pumpkin, pecan, apple, and key lime pies, plus a coconut flan for good measure, at someone else’s house; you dry-brine the turkey and slow-grill it on a Weber; and you declare all side dishes as meant to be served at room temperature.


A houseful of family and friends will join me this Thanksgiving in San Pancho: daughter Jennifer, son Michael, granddaughters Lily and Anna, brother Jim and sister-in-law Teri, friends Cheryl and Jeff, Judi and John. Their presence means more to me this year than ever. Mostly because of my dust-up with cancer and my need to express my gratitude to them out loud.

As usual, I had downplayed its importance to everyone who tried to rally around in my time of need. What need? There’s no need, I said. I told them how small the tumors were, how easy the treatment was compared to the past, how good I felt both physically and mentally. No, I assured them, I feel little or no pain; no fear or misgivings either.

It’s a tactic I use often, this minimizing of my experience, this pushing away the people who love and want to comfort me. As if I’m so tough. As if they have nothing to offer me. It’s so obviously dishonest. Had they not called to express concern, not sent cards and candy, my feelings would have been hurt and I would have held it against them.

Which is what I intend to confess to those gathered at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Then I’ll thank them for ignoring my shows of false bravado and for being there again for me this year. These people who are so dear to me will hear me express how grateful I feel that they are in my life. I’ll close by lightening up and going for a laugh: Nevertheless, I’ll say, it might always be true that my tombstone should read, “Here lies a fine example of what repression can accomplish.”